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I just registered for the Shalom Hartman Institute summer program in Jerusalem (after confirming a sane refund policy in case the region goes pear-shaped in the meantime). My rabbi recommended this program a few years ago and I've been eying it every year, and this year the stars aligned (dates, interesting topic, timely responses to email queries). It sounds like a great experience and I'm excited to finally be going.

I'm also kind of nervous -- not about the program, and not about the Iran thing (I can always bail), but rather about being a solo international traveler. This will only be my second time off the continent and the first time I went with a tour group so I didn't have to personally arrange anything, and somebody was steering us in useful directions. Those of you who've done this "foreign travel" thing, this is your enthusiatic invitation to tell me anything you think I ought to know, no matter how big or small.

Whee! Eeek!
1) get trip insurance. AAA has it. It only covers the trip and any injuries or incidents during transit time, but it's worth the peace of mind.

2) get about $20 value of their local currency before heading over. It helps.
If you have a layover in the UK or Spain, get some pounds or euros as well, for beverages at the airport. Some friend or another will have enough to get you through transit.

3) xerox your passport and ID, keep them separate. If you know someone else traveling, hand them a xerox of yours, and carry a set for them, just for in case of mugging. Again, peace of mind.

4) If there is an over the counter remedy you rely on, bring it. Small comforts lend a lot of peace.

5) load your mp3 player with benign amusements for the transit. You likely won't need them, but it's nice to know you have a pass-time of an intensity you control.

6) Contact your credit card company and bank both now and the duration before the trip to alert them that any unusual international activity is valid. (I have stories)

7) print out some contact cards to share with the great people you meet! It means no writing required at inopportune times.

8) there's probably a lot more, but the main thing is
Congratulations on the opportunity! This sounds like a fantastic experience, and I wish you all fulfillment with it!
as for #3 - I'd also scan them and email them to myself. and leave copies with someone at home.

might also be good to register with the consulate and get on their travel warning email list.
Good point about scanning and emailing.

It never would have occurred to me to contact the consulate; thanks. That's something I do from here before going, not something I do there, right?

Usually there's a page also where you can official "register" but I didn't see it. Good luck!
Thanks for all the helpful hints!

I love the cards idea.
I get my cards from Inexpensive and nice designs.
I've only been to Canada and France, both tame locations where I speak the local language, so my experiences might not apply. In Canada I was not alone but in France I not only took the rails around alone and slept in hostels but one morning in Paris I woke up at 6am and just walked down random streets and alleys until late evening. I had no map, and given the weird six-way intersections no clue where I was. But it was fun. (at one point someone asked me for directions to somewhere and pulled out a map.. it was hard not to giggle)

Definitely take local currency. Travelers cheques are a good idea too, but local currency is much easier as finding open banks is tricky. Everyone accepts cash. I'd say more than $20USD worth; more like $50USD/week. Stash it all over you and in various weird places (clothing in your suitcase, bags, etc). Worst case you exchange it back when you return, or save up the smaller stuff and pass them out to friends.

Some go for it but I would not wear a fanny pack. It just screams "tourista target!". That said, bags can be snatched.

As versus the standard phrases like "please direct me to the bathroom" I would learn fragments like "left", "block", "where is", "hotel". It's much easier to put things together and anyone can comprehend a broken version of their language (even if they are laughing at you). But you probably won't have that problem.

Get maps, if you can, or gmap+print them. Printing them seems wasteful but someone is much more likely to snatch a phone out of your hand than a piece of paper.

Given the advance notice, check out what restaurants are on your must list and your probably list.

..and most everything else said above.
Thanks for the advice! I should probably have mentioned that I've been to Canada bunch of times, though always with my husband (his family lives there). That seems like it ought to be pretty different from going overseas.

I was planning to take a backpack (and use both arms' straps), rather than an over-one-shoulder bag that screams "grab me". Is that any better for blending in than the fanny pack that you warned against?

I'm perfectly willing to waste some paper to have nice maps in a size I can see. I'm assuming my smartphone won't work there, after all, so if I want maps on the go they need to be paper.
Canada is indeed probably quite different from going to another continent, even if it feels like it politically.

A backpack should be fine so long as the zippers are closed and you can tell when they are being opened (I was behind someone about a year ago whose wallet fell out of his unzipped backpack that kept unzipping itself!). It's always hip to have a backpack. Fanny packs, though.. sure, the stuff is in front of you so what is in the pack is safe, but it still makes you a good target if you have anything else.

Paper maps are always cool. They also never stop partway through loading.
Since you're going to an organised program, I'm assuming they'll provide information about what you'll need, compatibility of electrical devices etc.

I'm so glad you're doing this - I look forward to reading about it!

I look forward to going and to writing about it. :-)

I do have a (single) universal power adapter thingy, so I know I can plug in my laptop. (The laptop is an iBook, which is small and fits nicely into a backpack, and that way I don't have to rely on finding public computers.)
relax and enjoy. :)
Other good advice has already been provided, so here are my additions:

1) If you ask directions in the local language, you will receive them in that language. Ask whether your potential guide speaks English before trying to ask for directions in a language you aren't comfortable with.

2) Do a little research on the cost to sent postcards back to the US--it could save you a bunch of money if you intend to send a bunch (I initially spent about $2 per postcard until I checked on the Poste website to find the correct denomination of stamps to use).

3) I have no idea whether you are going to be bringing back candies or treats for your relatives' or neighbors' kids. Any treat that contains a toy is likely to be confiscated by customs (e.g. "Kinder Eggs") because they contain something that is not food. There was an article online last year about it.

4) Buy an "International Phone". You can purchase one with limited minutes (and can buy additional time as you need it). US phones don't work overseas unless you replace the carrier chip.

5) Usual standard advice about air travel--take shoes you can easily slip off and on, don't take valuables, etc.

6) Like Pennsic: keep hydrated. And that includes while you are on the plane, too.

7) Check on local customs with regard to gratuities. For instance, in the UK, it is about 50p per person when you are at a pub, whereas in the US, it is a percentage of the bill.

8) If you plan to travel locally within the country, try to figure out the local transportaion websites *before* you go. SNCF's site was close to being user-hostile. Figuring their quirks out in the comfort of your own home will save you the aggravation of discovering how to use them just before the last practical bus/train left the station....

9) Go to the tourist office once you are there. A lot of "good stuff" to see and do is often not well-advertised online. Some countries and towns are really bad at marketing their attractions.
It's possible to rent phones at the airport, actually.
Is that better than getting them in advance? (Easier, cheaper, otherwise advantageous)? This is a new area for me.
I don't know about better, but it's easy, since the stalls are right there.
Cool. I hadn't noticed the kiosks before. But then again, I usually have a work-supplied phone. My wife bought one to use while she was visiting me, and she expects to make repeat visits. :)
I'm assuming this program is in Jerusalem; take my answers with a grain of salt elsewhere in Israel.

1) In Israel, they could always tell that I was an american and would answer me in English. YMMV. All directions in Jerusalem start "Yashar, yashar, yashar..." anyhow (translation: go straight). (No, they don't really, but it feels like it.)

6) VERY true in Jerusalem. It's a dry heat (unlike Tel Aviv), and you get dehydrated very easily without noticing it.

I've got lots more to say, but no time to say it before Shabbat :-)
Yes, Jerusalem. Typing "Shalom Hartman Institute Jerusalem" into Google Maps gets results, for those who know the local neighborhoods.

Living in the land of hot-and-humid, I'm all for a week of dry heat. :-) (Note to self: bring a water bottle instead of relying on water being available when you want it.)

Yes, Jerusalem.

Yes, sorry -- I did say that I was in a rush before Shabbat, right? :-)

It's around where I lived (actually between the two places I lived; I remember walking by the building, although never going in... but maybe it's moved since then.)

A lot of my other info is probably out of date -- it's been 13 years since I was in Jerusalem. Some things probably haven't changed, like the cabbies always trying to bargain a flat fee rather than turning on their meters (hint: the meters are usually cheaper, unless the driver decides to "get lost" to raise the fare).

Other stuff: the Israel Museum is pretty cool. If you have a couple of hours of free time, a flashlight/candle, shorts, sandals that you don't mind getting wet, and are not claustriphobic, go to Hezikah's tunnel. In II Kings 20:20 (and Chronicles), there's a kind of enegmatic passage about how he made a pool, and a conduit, and brought water into the city (Jerusalem). Well, archeologists have found the passage described there, and you can walk it. I thought it was cool, at least. You'll probably be so busy with the program that you won't have much free time, though.

Some Shabbat suggestions, which I'm sure others will mention. Remember this is all 13 years out of date. :-)

* Kol Haneshema is an amazing shul. (Hmm, I thought it was Reform, but their website says "progressive". Lots of singing, and if I had to have one complaint, it was that it was crowded.) I particularly went there Friday night. Siddurim were Hebrew, Hebrew/English, or Hebrew/Russian (that I recall).

* Yakar is a Carlebachian shul. Orthodox, yes, but (at least 13 years ago), quite the experience. front/back mechitza (not very high), and, at least at the time, it felt like everyone was singing. Crowded? Oh, yes. Again a Friday night place (13 years ago it was the upstairs minyan that was the place to be; downstairs was a bit more, um, boring. Locations may have changed. When I say "Carlebachian", I mean they did lots of Carlebach melodies, and they did not rush 'em, either. I usually brought my own "baby Sim Shalom", but I think that was just because I was more comfortable with that than with their all-hebrew siddurim there.

On Shabbat mornings, there are various options. You could go to Kol Haneshema. I went to the Agron St. Shul (Conservative) a lot. There is a Conservative minyan that used to meet at a masorti school located sort of near Pardes; I'm blanking on the name. (They were very friendly, and had their d'var in English, which was nice for me. :-) ) Um, or you could go to something more exotic - this is Jerusalem, and there are lots of shuls.
Thanks for the advice!

Oh yeah, postcards. That would probably be a good idea. I'll probably beat them back, but it's the thought that counts. :-)

Can you tell me more about international phones? Is that something I can buy here, or do I have to get it at the airport there?

I'm hoping that my local transport will consist of (1) getting to and from the airport and (2) whatever I can walk to. I'm not sure I'm up to figuring out Israeli buses, and I know I'm not crazy enough to get behind the wheel of a car there. :-)
I'll check to see where ealdthryth bought hers, but as has been previously noted, you can buy (or rent) one at an international airport--though I expect you'll pay a premium price if you purchase it at the airport.
How exciting! I've done the solo traveler thing, and it's awesome. I'm always more nervous when I first arrive (for some reason, even if my travel companion is as new to the place as I am, it's just less stressful to be wandering cluelessly with someone else), but once things start going, it's a lot of fun to just do what you want without having to coordinate with someone else's schedule and interests.

I prefer to have more like $50 of the local currency before heading off on a journey. I usually try to find an ATM as soon as possible after arriving to get more cash, but sometimes it takes a day or so, so it's good to be covered until then. Also, I always use ATMs to get local cash, not traveler's checks or other exchange places. I know nothing about the ubiquity of ATMs in Jerusalem, so check on that first, but if they're common, you generally get a better exchange rate that way. When I was flitting about Europe a few years ago, the friend I was with brought traveler's checks, and it was a real pain to find someplace that would take them/exchange them. But make sure you let your bank know where you'll be traveling so they don't block the card. (If traveling someplace where ATMs aren't common, though, never mind.)

Thanks for the advice. I have the impression that one can also often pay dollars and get shekels in change, at least in Jerusalem, so that's another way to get local currency. Otherwise, yeah, caah, ATMs, credit cards, but I wasn't planning to mess with traveler's checks.
In Europe, it is more customary to find people using "smart cards"--a debit card with a chip in it instead of a magnetic stripe. Credit cards are still looked upon with suspicion, and some merchants will outright refuse to accept them as payment (since it costs them money to accept them). If you do use a credit card, you may need to show the merchant how to record the transaction (aka "swipe" the card through the reader which is normally at the top right of the handheld device they use)--I ran into that issue a number of times last year.

You can still get a cash advance from an ATM using a normal credit card, though.
I don't have any great advice to share, so I'll just say "Yay! How exciting!"
I have some opinions about travel (some of which may conflict a little with other advice you receive) :)

  • I have a really hard time sleeping on airplanes, but I can zone out or even nap a bit if I have my inflatable neck pillow and mp3 player loaded with relaxing music. I bring eyedrops for long flights as I find the cabin air very drying.

  • Shops in major international airports will accept USD$ (but will give change in the local currency). Do not worry about getting additional forms of currency for stop-overs.

  • Don't bother with traveler's checks, I have not used them in 10 years and consider them obsolete. At this point the international ATM network is very well established in major cities, and I have had no problems withdrawing cash in various (urban) parts of the world. It's not a bad idea to buy a little bit of local currency before leaving, but since my last trip to China (which does not sell its currency outside the country) I haven't even been doing that.

  • With respect to credit cards, however, the future is unevenly distributed. They may not work even in developed areas with seemingly compatible networks. Plan to use cash more often and in larger amounts than we're used to here.

  • Call your bank and credit card companies to inform them of your travel plans, otherwise they may flag the international charges as fraud and freeze your cards.

  • A Kindle with cellular connection equals free rudimentary web browser in countries with compatible cell networks. For voice calls in non-CDMA countries, I bought a very basic unlocked GSM phone that I then load with a local SIM card.

  • +1 on advice to make photocopies of your passport and other important personal documents. It's good for peace of mind.

  • If signage is translated into any non-local language, chances are that language will be English. The translation may be bad but it's better than nothing. Us native English speakers get a big, big boost in that regard.

  • Some people buy a lot of special stuff for traveling. I am not one of those people. I don't have a money belt, armored bag, jacket with a bunch of hidden pockets, special-purpose clothing, etc. I've had a lot of people who do not travel much warn me about pick-pockets and theft but I have never, not once, felt any more concerned for the safety of my belongings outside the US than I do at home. I feel more comfortable-- and safer-- with my customary clothes, bags, etc since I am not fussing around and being distracted with something unfamiliar.

  • I do, however, carry a larger bag with space for a guidebook, map, camera, and a bottle of water (important if you feel any concern about the safety of the local drinking water).

  • Humans are humans everywhere. We all have to eat, sleep, relieve ourselves, and get from point A to point B. Feel confident that you will be able to get your basic needs met, especially if you speak a little of the local language.

  • Some of the experiences I value most from my travels are very simple-- just walking around the local area and observing, maybe sitting outside at a cafe or park for a while. I think solo travel can be a special gift because you are not encumbered by anyone else's agenda or expectations, and are free to explore and interact with the area at your own pace.

  • Getting back into the US is annoying. Prior to boarding the plane back into the country, you may need to clear additional security checks. Also, they will no longer allow you to bring bottled water on the flight, even if it was purchased in the sterile area of a stop-over airport. Customs may be suspicious and unfriendly. Comparing the attitude of immigration control inside and outside the US was an eye-opener for me.

Have a wonderful trip!

Edited at 2012-02-24 05:20 pm (UTC)
Most major signage there is trilingual, actually: Hebrew, English, and Arabic.

And I agree that solo travel can be excellent; I end up interacting with local people more when I'm alone than when I'm with other people, which I tend to enjoy.
Thanks for all the helpful advice!

I love the phrase "the future is unevenly distributed". :-)

Thanks for the Kindle reminder; that's small enough to pack alongside the laptop and gives me extra versatility.
Ironically, this is the first year in about 15 years that my father isn't going.

I hope you have a wonderful time!

Keep track of where you eat so that if you get sick, you won't go back there.
Aw bummer -- I didn't know I might have had a father-of-a-friend connection there, and now I don't. :-) (Is he one of the rabbinic fellows there?)
He'll probably be back in the future, but my parents are moving this summer.

I'm actually not sure if he's a rabbinic fellow officially or not. I'll ask.
Jerusalem is a fairly easy place to be a mostly-English speaker, actually. I've walked alone over much of the city and never had a problem (other than the usual irritations of traffic and whatnot:-), and it's an international-enough city that has whatever things you might forget in packing.

There are a couple of ways to get from the airport to Jerusalem; the train is pretty but slow, the bus reasonably efficient but requires a local hop at the other end; the simplest (and still cost effective) is a sherut (shared taxi)(NB: what sounds like the plural of sherut, sherutim, actually means bathroom). Once in the city, the bus system is quite good (there's some form of rail that may be open by now; I saw it under construction last time I was there, so haven't used it).

I don't know how much unstructured time you'll have, so feel free to ignore any/all of these ideas of things to see. There's the classic museum-ish destinations: the Israel Museum, Yad VaShem, the Knesset, the Shrine of the Book, and about a zillion smaller museums (like the Ticho House). Of course there's the Western Wall, but there's also the rest of the Old City. There are numerous walking tours if you'd like a guide (and tour guides have to be certified, and are very knowledgeable). I love walking through Machaneh Yehudah, an open-air food market, sometimes getting fresh pita or borekas. There's a promenade towards the southeast with wonderful views; I'm blanking on the name. If you have a day, you might consider a nature tour of some sort through SPNI (the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel). There's also tours through Egged (the bus company), which is the way I managed to see some of the northern coast. And I just love walking around exploring; there's lots more nooks and crannies than the average USian city :-).

If you're going to have time to walk much, bring good walking shoes; the sidewalks can be stone, which can be hard on the knees after a while.

Thanks for all the helpful advice! I know there will be some unstructured time but I don't know in what block sizes, so knowing about options to fill them is good.
I wouldn't worry about taking local currency. If you can even get shekels in the U.S. they will be at a very poor exchange rate and you will pay high fees. There is no shortage of ATMs at TLV and around the country. (And one can pay for a surprising amount of things with U.S. dollars.)

I travel a lot, often alone, to places where I don't speak the language and where things are considerably less developed. (Israel is a first world country. Almost.) So feel free to ask me any specific questions.

Oh, re: flights, if you can't get non-stops, think carefully about connecting times. I've been presented with way too many options that have minimum legal connecting times and no margin of error. Allow at least 2-3 hours to connect at most European hubs. (FRA and CDG connections almost always require long bus rides from a remote parking stand to the terminal. And Israel has a lot of additional security which slows things too.)

Thanks for the advice! I haven't chosen flights yet, so I may have some questions for you about better and worse places to connect. (There are non-stops from New York, and there are flights that stop in various places in Europe. If I can get one of the former I will, if it isn't crazy-expensive compared to other options.)
Keep some toilet paper and soap in your bag. Always have maps for where you want to go and schedules for the area public transit. Shopkeepers are sitting in rooms full of stuff just lying out, but they're hard to kill and if you manage it all the stuff becomes cursed anyway and your pet will eat yo... wait, wrong game.

Thanks for the advice and the laugh. :-)
Keep some toilet paper and soap in your bag.

Big +1-- those little packets of Kleenex are perfect for this, and I take a small bottle of hand sanitizer as well.
What dates are you going to be there?
The program runs from Jun 27 to July 4 (Wednesday to Wednesday). I'll arrive by Tuesday the 26th and probably leave Thursday the 5th so I'll be home for Shabbat. Details are still to be worked out; I haven't chosen flights yet.
I was by myself for 10 days of my trip to Israel a few years ago and here are Israel-specific things I can remember that relate to some of the general travel advice above.
-For me, the exchange rate was much better on a credit card than any other way. I had multiple cards from different companies with me so that when one got shut off, I still had others to use
-ATM machines are everywhere. I used them for cash. Fees weren't bad because I got a chunk of money at a time.
-I had per-arranged to rent a cell phone; it was waiting for me at the airport. I don't remember the company. It was very cheap. Incoming calls were free. I felt more secure with it because I had security issues (with the Israeli side, not others, long story).
-Almost everyone speaks English. The times I tried to speak in Hebrew, people spoke back to me in English.
-Most signs are translated into English. For locations, you should know enough Hebrew to be able to read them by sounding them out.
-People do not wait in line to get on buses, you push your way to the front if you want to get on (yes, I rode the buses. So do millions of other people). You can get bus schedules on the internet and buy tickets there, too.
-Police officers and soldiers may randomly ask you or others for your passport. This is normal. They do not need "cause" like they do in the US!
-Your bags may be run through x-ray to get on long distance buses. You will also be asked for your passport. This is also normal.
-If you had trouble with the interview before boarding the plane, or at passport control expect to have it again. It may not happen, but if you're on a list, you're on a list. The questions they ask can be a problem for converts (they like to fish us out) but just be yourself and like every other Jewish tourist.